Something to think about.

A link to this article was posted on the Well Trained Mind message boards. It’s a fascinating article on a topic of great interest to me.

…The scientific enterprise is probably the most fantastic achievement in human history, but that doesn’t mean we have a right to overstate what we’re accomplishing.”

We could solve much of the wrongness problem, Ioannidis says, if the world simply stopped expecting scientists to be right. That’s because being wrong in science is fine, and even necessary—as long as scientists recognize that they blew it, report their mistake openly instead of disguising it as a success, and then move on to the next thing, until they come up with the very occasional genuine breakthrough. But as long as careers remain contingent on producing a stream of research that’s dressed up to seem more right than it is, scientists will keep delivering exactly that.

“Science is a noble endeavor, but it’s also a low-yield endeavor,” he says. “I’m not sure that more than a very small percentage of medical research is ever likely to lead to major improvements in clinical outcomes and quality of life. We should be very comfortable with that fact.”

From Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science by David Freedman in the August 5, 2011 Atlantic

2 thoughts on “Something to think about.

  1. My DH spent some time a few months ago at a research facility. He told me about how one discovery (which might’ve been termed a failure) led to another such “failure” and that one to another until FINALLY someone got it “right.”. (I believe it had to do with the discovery of the structure of DNA.). Anyway, it reminds me of that quote about standing on the shoulders of giants. My dh would probably enjoy the article!

  2. When I ran an R&D shop not many years ago, the “wisdom” was that ideally 10% of efforts should successfully make it to the field/market. That supposedly represented the appropriate level of technical risk being taken. However, the reality was that if at least half weren’t successful, funding would become difficult. We may learn as much or more from “failures”, but its “success” that attracts bucks. Nothing says “fund me” like successful outcomes to pitch to sponsors, whether congressional or corporate. I don’t believe that’s ever been different in the history of the world since the Fall.

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